Engage Your Troops

In 480 B.C., Greeks fought an invading Persian army in Thermopylae. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands in history, when 300 Spartans held their own against 100,000 men for longer than was expected until they perished, leaving a legacy and inspiring thousands.

Just imagine how nervous and tense those Spartans felt knowing death was almost certain and they could save themselves if they only surrendered. Yet they let their tremendous pride, loyalty, respect and optimism for their cause and purpose guide them forward instead of into retreat. Certainly not an easy decision to make, but we can all agree it was a noble one.

In today’s economy, a business owner might feel as if motivating his or her employees is a bit like the challenge King Leonidas had when trying to rally his few Spartans against overwhelming and impossible odds. Raises and bonuses aren’t what they were; every employee is working harder and longer hours for little or no extra reward; employees are tense; jobs are scarce; work-life balance is out of balance. In fact, in a recent Gallup poll, 36 percent of Americans say unemployment is the most important problem facing the United States, followed by the economy at 30 percent. Another Gallup poll reveals 90 percent of Americans believe now is a bad time to find a quality job. And, to top it all off, Gallup also reports 71 percent of American workers are “not engaged” in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their jobs and less likely to be productive.

The Spartans’ odds are starting to look pretty good.

Research says high levels of employee engagement in a company are linked to superior business performance, including increased productivity, profitability, employee retention, safety and even customer satisfaction. Effective company culture can account for 20 to 30 percent of the difference in bottom line performance when compared with culturally unremarkable companies, says James Heskett in his book, “The Culture Cycle”. How in today’s environment can a leader motivate his people and drive employee engagement? New research from the Great Place to Work Institute (greatplacetowork.com) and Burson-Marsteller (burson-marsteller.com) provide some focused ideas.

1. Build trust and pride: It takes more than a motivational speech to rally the troops. Employees must believe in their managers; they will closely monitor them to see how their decisions affect company direction and if their behavior reflects their words. A good leader must not only have loyalty toward an organization but also loyalty toward its people. Employees also want to feel good about their company’s reputation and the services they provide. To build trust and pride as a leader, regularly promote company values and practice what you preach.

2. Support employee growth: Encourage personal development by providing education and learning opportunities, training and coaching. Seventy-five percent of senior executives from 20 of the top 25 Great Places to Work say career development programs offered the most stability during economic uncertainty. Success breeds success. These companies also invested more in their employees during the tough economy – 70 percent didn’t cut back any work-life programs, such as flex-time, health benefits and employee perks, while the remaining 30 percent invested more in such initiatives.

3. Communicate and listen: Employees want to be part of a compelling future. Daily goals can be effective motivators if they are tied to larger organizational ambitions. Let employees know what’s going on in the company and how their jobs contribute to the big picture. Informed employees typically feel as if they have a greater sense of worth. Communication works both ways, so encourage suggestion boxes and welcome ideas. Be a good communicator and a good listener. Acknowledge receipt of ideas, give immediate feedback and provide regular updates/progress reports so employees know they are headed in the right direction.

4. Foster a team environment and a positive culture: Strong employee engagement is dependent on a positive culture and how well employees participate in a team environment. When asked which elements of workplace commitment most benefit daily operations, the top 20 Great Places to Work ranked culture at 80 percent and recruitment/retention at 70 percent. Competitiveness, customer loyalty, innovation and productivity – while critical to daily operations – trailed behind with each less than 20 percent. “Star performers seek companies with values that mirror their own,” says Deidre Campbell, managing director in Burson-Marsteller’s corporate practice where she specializes in developing ROI strategies for Fortune 100 companies.

As Campbell says, becoming a great workplace is not a transition that happens overnight – it’s a result of long-term employee investment. As the top-ranked companies demonstrate, employee investment can “increase productivity, improve recruitment and retention and save costs – all positively impacting the bottom line,” she explains. “In challenging economic times, we are reminded that a company should not only be a great workplace because it is the right thing to do, but because it is good for business.”

Your odds may not be as great as those facing Leonidas’ Spartans, but you can inspire tremendous pride in your employees and add to your bottom line.

Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is currently a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.’s marketing/corporate communications department. Visit her blog at www.mybiggreenpen.com or reach her at nwisniewski@neo.rr.com.